Who Rules America?  By G. William Domhoff, University of California at Santa Cruz

Review from:

Urban Affairs Review

September 2010 (Vol. 46)

Review by Terry Christensen, San Jose State University

The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz, by Richard Gendron and G. William Domhoff. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2009. 240 pp. $27.00 (paper).

The title of this book suggests that it is just the story of politics in a unique community with little to tell us about power and politics more generally. But Leftmost City is much more than that, as might be surmised by the fact that G. William Domhoff, a leading writer and theorist of power in America for four decades, is coauthor.

Gendron and Domhoff open their book not with the specifics of politics in Santa Cruz, California, but with a discussion of four major theories of community power -- Marxist urban theory, public choice theory, regime theory, and (their preference) growth coalition theory (based on Logan and Molotch 1987). Each is clearly explained, and later in the book, each is applied to the Santa Cruz case study.

But the heart of the book is the story of Santa Cruz, from its founding in 1848 through more than a hundred years of dominance by the local growth coalition and then the rise of a progressive movement that beat the growth coalition repeatedly from 1981 to date.

Santa Cruz declined during World War II, but local boosters helped revive it as a tourist destination in the 1950s. They also sowed the seeds of their own destruction when, for the sake of economic development, they recruited a campus of the University of California to Santa Cruz -- and included the campus at the edge of the city within city limits to facilitate access to water and utilities. Students started arriving in 1965 -- just as the civil rights, antiwar, and farm worker movements were growing. Many became engaged in these movements and in community politics. Then, in 1971, the Twentysixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, and politics in Santa Cruz changed forever.

Gendron and Domhoff present data that show students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, were (and still are) more liberal than students at other universities, but they also explain how the university's community studies program connected students to local politics and how faculty and alumni settled into Santa Cruz and engaged politically.

Until 1969, the growth coalition won every battle over development, defeating weak and transient neighborhood groups. But in the 1970s, as elsewhere, these groups gained stability and skill (assisted by the growing university-related population), and they found new allies among environmentalists, liberals, and socialist-feminists (as they are known in Santa Cruz). The neighborhood/environmentalist alliance occurred in other cities, too, but the university population and the social movement liberals, also with university connections, gave the Santa Cruz coalition a significant boost in passion and power. In the 1970s, they were electing members of the city council, and since 1981, they have held majorities on the council. Perhaps more significantly, according to Gendron and Domhoff, they have defeated every growth project proposed by landowners and developers.

A major earthquake in 1989 tested the progressive coalition to its limits, as more than half of Santa Cruz's downtown retail district was destroyed. All sides wanted to rebuild downtown as a commercial and community center and a source of local revenues. Landowners and developers sought to maximize the scale of the project while neighborhood groups and environmentalists preferred more modest development that enhanced the quality of life in the surrounding areas. Some progressives took an interest in more intense development as a way to generate revenues that could fund social services, and the potential for a division between the social progressives and the neighborhood/environmentalists became apparent. Officeholders within the progressive coalition also recognized that they could not rebuild downtown without some level of cooperation from landowners and developers.

The progressives were attacked for delaying reconstruction and challenged by progrowth candidates in local elections. They suffered defections and factionalism in their own ranks. But the perilous politics of this period were successfully navigated by the progressive leaders. Downtown Santa Cruz was rebuilt closer to the ideal of the neighborhood leaders than to that of the landowners and developers. The progressive coalition rules in Santa Cruz today.

Santa Cruz politics has a lot in common with politics in other college towns such as Berkeley, California, or Ann Arbor, Michigan, or in other bastions of liberalism such as Santa Monica, California. The progressive coalition there also sounds like coalitions that arise in larger cities around specific issues, growth policies, or charter reforms. These coalitions are rarely lasting, however. They fragment when the specific threat or opportunity is past. Neighborhood groups go back to their niche; social liberals move on; environmentalists and labor become antagonists rather than allies. But in Santa Cruz, the coalition survives and in its survival may be a lesson for progressives elsewhere.

The Santa Cruz case illustrates two other phenomena of urban politics that are too often overlooked: fault lines within the progrowth and antigrowth coalitions and the importance of governmental structures in determining winners and losers. Gendron and Domhoff elucidate the different interests of landowners, developers, and business operators (and divisions among them have been a major factor in the defeat of multiple projects in Santa Cruz). They also make clear the divisions within the progressive coalition, especially the tetchy connection between neighborhood groups with their NIMBY tendencies and social progressives. Similarly, they show how the opposing coalitions changed electoral and governmental structures to their own advantage, most notably by setting election dates concurrently or separately from state and national elections.

In their concluding chapter, Gendron and Domhoff return to the theories of community power they introduced at the beginning of the book and apply them to the case of Santa Cruz. Marxism and public choice theory are most readily dismissed. Their discussion of regime theory is more complex, but they assert its limitations in understanding community politics persuasively, at least in the Santa Cruz case. Maybe Clarence Stone, the progenitor of regime theory, agrees -- the book's jacket includes his words of praise for Leftmost City. Ultimately, Gendron and Domhoff conclude that growth coalition theory gives us the best understanding of power in Santa Cruz and elsewhere because it alone provides "a substantive grounding of urban political conflict in the commodified nature of land in the United States and a larger historical context that explains why local governments are weak" (p. 203). That said, they also readily point out some shortcomings of growth coalition theory, such as the tendency to assume "that the growth coalition is more cohesive than schismatic" (p. 204).

These are useful insights that, even though Santa Cruz may be an extraordinary case, give us a deeper understanding of politics in American communities. More importantly for participants and practitioners, Leftmost City shows that political action in communities can make a difference, despite the notorious limits imposed on cities by higher levels of government and globalization. The one weakness of this book is that it tends to gloss over these constraints.

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